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Book Review: Hissing Cousins

By (March 14, 2015) No Comment

Hissing Cousins:hissing cousins cover

The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth

by Marc Peyser & Timothy Dwyer

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2015

The title of the new book by Marc Peyser and Timothy Dwyer is Hissing Cousins, and the book is about the decades-long and sometimes-tempestuous relationship between Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt, her contemporary, the daughter of Theodore’s brother, and the wife of President Franklin Roosevelt. “Hissing Cousins” is a play on the term “kissing cousins,” which is an idiom referring to cousins who are distantly-related but still familiar enough to kiss when greeting. The change to “hissing” from “kissing” is an allusion to the early-20th century sexist idea that women hiss at each other, like cats, when they fight. Eleanor and Alice Roosevelt Longworth were first cousins, and over the course of nearly eighty years they were never observed to kiss when greeting, and they were each far too formidable to hiss, like cats, when disagreeing with each other. The book’s title, in other words, instantly trivializes its own subject, falsifies it, inverts it. In other words, it’s not just a bad book-title, it’s distractingly, obstructively, colossally bad.

Which is a shame, since the book itself is lively, entertaining stuff and considerably more discerning than the implication of the title, which is two guys out of Seinfeld episode standing around sneeringly watching two little ladies engaged in a hissy catfight. The book’s sub-title, “The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Longworth Roosevelt” is a sounder business, although that “untold” part is the usual book-publicist silliness; the story of the relationship between these two remarkable women has been told many, many times, not least in every biography of both Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Longworth Roosevelt that Peyser and Dwyer cite in their Bibliography.

Indeed, it’s always been too good a story for biographers and historians to resist. Alice Roosevelt, the apple of her father’s eye, referred to as “Princess Alice” while she was growing up in the White House, has all the best lines, an acid-sharp observer of the nation’s political life and a quite active power-broker in that life as well. Eleanor Roosevelt (as our authors point out, when she married young Franklin she didn’t need to change her maiden name) levered her position as long-suffering First Lady and subsequent ambassador into one of the most highly-visible public positions any woman in the country’s history had ever enjoyed. The added fact that the two often clashed just adds to the allure of the subject. “In a way,” Peyser and Dwyer write,

they were reverse role models for each other, examples of how not to live. They spent a good deal of their lives looking over their shoulders at each other and running as fas as they could in the opposite direction. It’s hard to blame them. Princess Alice was Washington royalty for almost eighty years. Eleanor became First Lady of the World. Who would want to compete with either of them?

In this book, they mainly compete with each other – to a greater degree than they did in real life, granted, but our authors have a story to tell, so they tend to gravitate toward the juiciest bits, and to describe them juicily. Readers will have to be wary of that tendency. For instance, when writing about Alice’s lavish 1906 wedding and its attendant treasure-hoard of wedding presents, Peyser and Dwyer report that the press “salivated” over these gifts and that “the bride salivated too.” But then they actually quote Alice herself, who very pointedly isn’t salivating: “There was fantastic exaggeration about my wedding presents, so far as the number and grandeur was concerned … I had about the sort of presents that any girl gets from relatives and friends and friends of the family, with the exception of a few from foreign potentates.”

In fact, the main strength of the book is the authors’ willingness to quote its two main characters at length. As fans of Elliott Roosevelt’s late, lamented murder mysteries will attest, there’s hardly been a member of the extended Roosevelt clan who couldn’t write beguiling prose, and this certainly applies to Eleanor, who once in corresponding with a friend wrote about her own shortcomings as a mother: “I guess I was a pretty unwise teacher as to go about living. Too late to do anything now, however, and I am rather disgusted with myself. I feel soiled, but you won’t understand that.” And Alice was endlessly, compulsively quotable, whether she was writing to her brother on the eve of World War II about how Franklin wanted war in order to, as our authors put it, “distract the country from the failures of the New Deal”:

“I’m fascinated by Franklin’s note to the Polish President and Hitler [she wrote in 1939] … To use the phraseology of the L. of N. [League of Nations] to Hitler! Clanking the ball and chain of the Versailles treaty, which is Hitler’s red flag, bloody shirt – the reason with a big R for everything he does. It must have been deliberate. ‘Needling’ the Fuhrer. It’s proof that Franklin’s trite pieties mean nothing. That he wants war. That he realizes that war is the only way he can retrieve his power which has been slipping away so rapidly – that only war can divert attention from his sweeping failures.”

Or whether she’s dishing out quips at state occasions, as Peyser and Dwyer gleefully narrate:

Alice made her last visit to the White House as the guest of Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, in the summer of 1976. Queen Elizabeth II was visiting the United States for the bicentennial, and Alice, who had met just about every British royal of the twentieth century, was a natural addition to the guest list. While Alice chatted with the queen bout her memories of dinging with Elizabeth’s great-grandfather Edward VII, she was carrying a diamond-rimmed purse that the king had given her as a wedding present seventy years before. Alice also spotted Lady Bird Johnson across the room. “Shall I ask her how Lyndon is?” she inquired of her escort. “You can’t do that, because he’s dead,” he replied. Even with her fading ninety-two-year-old memory, Alice was still as quick as most folks can ever hope to be. “Oh then,” she said. “I shall ask her how Lyndon was.”

Almost inevitably, “Princess” Alice tends to steal the book from her more staid, more responsible cousin Eleanor (the authors even affectionately note that on her death certificate, in the space asking for her occupation, there’s the single word “gadfly”), just as regularly as she tended to steal the spotlight while both were still alive. The nuances of that living relationship are largely absent from this entertaining but slightly breathless account (the US edition has snakes on the cover, because, you see, snakes hiss), but readers looking for the “good bits” – especially readers coming to the subject for the first time – will find a great deal to amuse them. Once they get past the title, that is.